Clout of Africa

Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing edited by Rob Spillman. Penguin (Non-Classics). Paperback, 368 pages. $16.
The Thing Around Your Neck BY Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Knopf. Hardcover, 240 pages. $24.
Secret Son BY Laila Lalami. Algonquin Books. Hardcover, 291 pages. $23.
Season of Migration to the North (New York Review Books Classics) BY Tayeb Salih. edited by Denys Johnson-Davies, Laila Lalami. NYRB Classics. Paperback, 184 pages. $14.

The cover of Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing The cover of The Thing Around Your Neck The cover of Secret Son The cover of Season of Migration to the North (New York Review Books Classics)

“Treat Africa as if it were one country,” quips the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina in “How to Write About Africa,” a barbed guide for Western authors who hope to address this misunderstood continent. “Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. . . . Keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.” First published in Granta in 2005, Wainaina’s satire lands its punch by gathering the tenacious clichés about Africa—the savage and noble-savage exotica still lodged in the Western imagination, the game-hunting landscapes that seem to autogenerate purple raptures, the liberal visitor’s hand-wringing about endemic graft and corruption. Wainaina trots out a parade of straw figures such as the Loyal Servant, the Ancient Wise Man, the venal Modern African, and the Starving African, “who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. . . . She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment.”

Wainaina’s essay is more than an acerbic takedown of lazy and half-informed Western perceptions. Embedded within it is a manifesto of sorts. If we turn inside out the sardonic rules and prohibitions, a vision of African literature emerges that departs from the dark-continent fantasies still entertained even by sophisticates in Europe and North America. “Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation. . . . Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances.” In one sense, this is a call to normalize African writing, to make its human scale comparable to that of literature set elsewhere. But I don’t think Wainaina is suggesting that African writers shy away from the spectacular themes and subject matter that haunt the continent—its wars, epidemics, colonial legacies, religious clashes, and strongmen. The dilemma for imaginative writers lies in staying faithful to the totality of their experiences while shunning images that simply confirm Western biases. The sporadic media coverage of Africa runs a familiar gamut, broadcasting a continent in perpetual—and, it is implied, essential—peril. The challenge of African writing is to provide some new news.

Judging from Rob Spillman’s anthology Gods and Soldiers, African writers have risen to the task. Spillman offers a bracing array of current literature, including selections from established novelists (Achebe, Farah, Coetzee, Gordimer) but also featuring those whose careers are just getting under way. He is surely right that the present moment is one of exceptional vitality. Whereas C. L. Innes, in compiling with Chinua Achebe the second edition of The Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories in 1992, struggled to find material for consideration because influential magazines such as Transition and Black Orpheus had ceased publication, Spillman has chosen from an embarrassment of riches. Notable absences from Gods and Soldiers instantly spring to mind, Ben Okri and Assia Djebar being only the most obvious.

These and other omissions suggest a superabundance within the continent’s many literatures. Are we in the midst of an “African literary renaissance,” as Spillman contends, an el boom from the other side of the Atlantic? Perhaps, but the surge of African writing is tellingly different from the Latin American explosion of the ’60s. Besides being identified with magic realism (though not all its writers practiced it), the literature of the Latin American boom was already formed within the region’s own institutions and coteries before being packaged in translation and exported. The new African writing is emphatically not homegrown. Forged in the crucible of globalization, it is a literature largely of displacement and exile. Most striking in scanning the biographical notes in Gods and Soldiers is how few of its contributors, especially the younger ones, live in the countries in which they were born. Nearly all the Francophone writers have settled in France, and the typical English-language writer has an American MFA and professorship.

Given the difficulties of publication and distribution on the continent, along with censorship and other harassment, a readership outside Africa can be crucially important to sustaining a career. Spillman notes approvingly how “African writers are showing up with regularity in the pages of The New Yorker and in American and European literary magazines.” The revolution in telecommunications and global travel has transformed the African diaspora: Writers can remain engaged with their home countries’ politics and culture while supporting themselves abroad. Usually polyglot, exposed to a panoply of cultural influences, African writers have always been enviably cosmopolitan. What they, along with migratory writers from Asia and Latin America, are now creating is a dynamic and various literature of globalization.

Spillman’s collection, taking a wide purview, includes essays, lectures, a piece of a memoir, and much fiction. The choice of nonfiction is a little scattershot—why begin a contemporary survey with Achebe’s 1965 essay “The African Writer and the English Language”?—but gives a sense of the liveliness and depth of the continent’s debates. Much of the imaginative writing examines at close range the traumas of recent history. In an excerpt from his novel Knots, Nuruddin Farah distills the failed-state chaos of his native Somalia into a parable that perches on the precarious border between civilization and barbarism. When Cambara, a singer who had been living abroad, returns to Mogadishu, she finds her home occupied by young soldiers who do little else than chew khat and allow the house to fall into ruin. She demands that they clean the place, and to her surprise (and ours) they put aside their machine guns and set to the task, with only one of the youths, a soldier named LongEars, grumbling about women’s work. It’s as if Cambara is reestablishing the very foundation of culture, which has caved in as Mogadishu has spiraled out of control. The episode culminates in the killing of a chicken that had been brought back from the market to be cooked. When the bird escapes the freshly scrubbed kitchen, LongEars shoots it with his AK-47, causing one of the teen soldiers to weep over its corpse “as though mourning the death of a beloved pet.” The incident’s power resides in its double revelation. In the aftermath of the killing, Cambara feels “a tenuous comprehension of what it means to be powerless in the face of brute force,” yet she has also triumphed, having restored the norms by which an animal’s improper slaughter can be felt as a violation, a betrayal.

The few glimpses of village life in the pieces collected here are generally anachronistic. The continent is rapidly urbanizing, and those writers who still address their rural backgrounds do so in a mood of conspicuous detachment or nostalgic longing. There is no escaping the long arm of the West or the dreamlike side effects of Africa’s imperfect integration with the rest of the world. Western media has been beaming its distortions into Africa for some time, mainly via television, and a writer as perceptive as Wainaina offers shrewd reflections on the Neverland continent that continually flickers back. He writes of how his youthful perceptions in Kenya were inevitably measured against small-screen images and how there persists “an Africa ten metres away from us in the living room, and a million light-years from any reality we can process: this Africa is the same as Disney World, and Woody Woodpecker and Groovy Ghoulies and the Boomtown Rats.”

Joining the mosaiclike picture in Gods and Soldiers of the present reality, and unreality, of the continent is a selection of responses to postindependence literary traditions. Unless they are writing satire, the younger contributors express themselves via layered ironies, even when describing extreme situations. A standout piece is Helon Habila’s “Lomba,” a story set during Nigeria’s Abacha dictatorship that won Habila the Caine Prize in 2001. A journalist who has not been charged with a crime, Lomba begins keeping a diary that, when discovered, earns him a brutal beating and a spell in solitary confinement. The prison narrative is familiar because many prominent African writers have been incarcerated as dissidents; the story calls to mind the writings of Ng˜ug˜ı wa Thiong’o and Wole Soyinka (whose The Man Died is mentioned in passing), among others. The precedent of imprisoned writers exerts an authority that is moral, literary, and generational. How does a younger writer clear a space to create a prison story of his or her own?

Habila’s solution is ingenious and risky, but his daring pays off when he steers the tale into the incongruous realm of petty domestic comedy. When the prison superintendent reads the confiscated diary, he discovers Lomba’s poemscallow efforts that Lomba concedes are pastiches of works read in school. But the superintendent, desperate to marry his reluctant girlfriend, seizes on the idea of having Lomba ghostwrite poems to assist his wooing. Lomba’s life is instantly improved, and the superintendent is transformed from a figure of menace into a hapless tangle of nerves. In the role reversal of warden and prisoner, we see the superintendent humanized. He has a name and a history and domestic desires far removed from the sadism of his day job. He is the sort of shabby functionary who keeps authoritarian regimes running smoothly the world over, but after seeing him as a sentimental suitor we’re tempted to think he might have a soul after all. The story’s denouement—where the superintendent alters the course of Lomba’s fate as well as of his impending marriage—shows the superintendent’s cowardice to be both a moral outrage and a perfectly rational response to the clench of a repressive system.

Habila’s fellow Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is represented in Gods and Soldiers by “Half of a Yellow Sun,” a tale with the same title as her 2006 novel. While the novel also concerns Nigeria’s crushing of the secessionist Biafran Republic, this story creates a different impression. Interlarded with Igbo proverbs, the story is ceremonial, liturgical, a sort of prose-poem dirge in counterpoint to the novel’s expansive historical reconstruction. In both, Adichie emphasizes how people during wartime shed the bearings of identity and behave in ways inconceivable to them but a few months before. She homes in on the erosion of small dignities as the war brings on ever more dire predicaments. It’s a tricky calibration of spectacle and character: Depiction of the conflict’s horrors never overwhelms the focus on particular lives, on how fragile, when subjected to extremity, selfhood reveals itself to be.

Adichie’s characters, mostly drawn from Nigeria’s Igbo intelligentsia and business elite, take shape as collections of gestures. Their confident, commanding acts show their ease within hierarchies that encourage the powerful to take much for granted. Out of such assurance comes a great deal of charisma and, not incidentally, erotic allure. Adichie carefully builds up a fictional world in which even small behaviors resonate within an intricate order of stonelike solidity; then she charts the crumbling of the edifice. Hers is an art of things falling apart—the connection to Achebe runs deeper than their both being Igbo, their mutual affiliation with the university town of Nsukka, and her invocation of the elder novelist in the first sentence of her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), which begins, “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion.”

The novel Half of a Yellow Sun is an epic of disintegration, but Adichie orchestrates the Biafran War’s chaos into something like a symphony. Its underlying coherence suggests, despite Adichie’s novelistic inclinations, a historian’s magisterial attitude. This perspective—which unleashes the novel’s swift upheavals to disrupt slowly established patterns in the narrative—wouldn’t fit within a short story’s confines. She builds some of the other tales in her new collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, around a sudden change that characters must adapt to, an abrupt sliding into a situation “so abnormal that it quickly became normal,” as she puts it in “Cell One.” In that story, a professor’s wayward son is arrested for suspected gang activity and is detained not in Nsukka—“our slow, insular campus and the slower, more insular town,” where the youth’s father “would know the police superintendent”—but in the state capital of Enugu, where he may be killed in prison. The reflexive responses are disrupted: “My father no longer delivered a monologue . . . on how illiterate and corrupt the police were. . . . My mother did not mumble, They are symptoms of a larger malaise. Instead my parents remained silent. It was as if refusing to criticize the police as usual would somehow make Nnamabia’s freedom imminent.” An uneasy jumble of fear and hope eats away at habitual dispositions; Adichie’s attention to subtle deviations makes such observations all the more forceful.

Several stories in The Thing Around Your Neck take place in the United States, where Adichie, recently the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, spends much of her time. They survey a range of Nigerian immigrants: a cuckolded wife enduring luxurious loneliness in Philadelphia’s suburbs; a Princeton graduate student and her unlikely friend, a gay Christian Igbo man whose papers have expired; a waitress in Connecticut often thought to be Jamaican by the locals. Although they are impeccably crafted, there is something thin about these stories when compared with those set in Nigeria. Except for the sympathetic priest in “The Shivering,” Adichie’s Americans are often ignorant and always self-satisfied. Those who know anything about Africans are either self-absorbed—like the painter in “On Monday of Last Week,” who makes advances on her son’s Nigerian nanny—or smug, such as the globe-trotter boyfriend of the waitress in “The Thing Around Your Neck,” who collects experiences of non-Western cultures like trophies and whose travels amount to a “list of countries where he went to gawk at the lives of poor people who could never gawk back at his life.” Adichie casts American culture as changeable and superficial, and one wonders where her continuing engagement with this country will take her; she recently told The Guardian of her “complicated affection” toward the United States. A story like “On Monday of Last Week,” with its amusing send-up of overparenting, suggests a possible satiric direction, though this doesn’t seem like the mode most naturally hospitable to her. One hopes that, instead, her trenchant eye will uncover hidden complexities in the American fabric.

Laila Lalami’s new novel, Secret Son, is a root-cause analysis of Islamist terrorism and a state-of-the-nation briefing on contemporary Morocco. Through two fictional Casablanca neighborhoods, the slum Hay An Najat and the posh enclave Qubbet Jjmel, Lalami evokes a city of jagged contrasts, setting the masses’ abjection against the serene indifference of the moneyed elite. Class allegiances enforce deeply held suspicions. The poor are resigned, being “completely disabused of the notion that there was much use fighting against injustice”—except for its restless young men who, awakening to dismal futures, can be lured to militant Islam. In Hay An Najat, an Islamist party arrives after a flood and, filling the void left by government neglect, provides emergency assistance. Its leaders set up a headquarters that also serves as a community center, where the neighborhood’s youth drink tea, play chess, and watch movies, then listen to demagogic harangues.

Lalami’s sociological parsing of the Moroccan status quo accompanies a story about the secret paternity of Youssef El Mekki, a bookish teenager who has been raised by his mother in a one-room house. After years of lying, she reveals his father to be Nabil Amrani, a wealthy businessman in whose home she once worked. Doggedly seeking out Amrani at his sleek corporate office, Youssef encounters his father at a vulnerable moment, because his daughter has defied him by continuing a relationship with an American she met while studying at UCLA. Amrani, in his youth a leftist but now a “harried, elegant, authoritative” pragmatist, embraces Youssef and begins to groom him for the family business, setting him up with a luxury apartment and a job at a swank hotel. Youssef becomes alienated from his mother and friends from the old neighborhood—to which he must return, humiliated and without prospects, when he is abruptly cast out of Amrani’s life. Deeply depressed, he is recruited by religious extremists to assassinate a gadfly journalist hated by the state and the Islamists alike.

Secret Son can be remarkably lacking in subtlety: Mentions of Youssef’s lack of “belonging” and metaphors involving acting and performance rain down tediously, and Lalami writes too many sentences of thudding explanation: “It was so hard to keep the loneliness at bay, but harder still to keep his mother’s secret shuttered inside him.” But it offers a broad panorama, and within this scope Lalami can achieve considerable nuance. She is alert to miniscule social indicators—relationships can flourish or be quashed based on one’s French pronunciation—and, lawyerlike, she dissects things into constituent parts, as when she offers a taxonomy of the various cliques at Youssef’s university. Disparate observations are subsumed within a narrative logic that is polemical but never overheated or shrill. In her tautly argued account, Lalami has given us a lucid report on a nation betrayed by failed institutions and cynically manipulated politics.

Lalami has also contributed a fine introduction to the reissue of Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (1969), vouching for the quality of Denys Johnson-Davies’s translation, undertaken in consultation with Salih, who died earlier this year. Drawing equally from traditions of oral storytelling and modernist narrative, Salih composed this brief novel in a sensuous prose marked by poetic repetitions, incantatory rhythms, and phrases redolent of the proverbial. It remains regrettably obscure outside the Arabic-speaking world, where it has been widely praised.

The novel’s anonymous narrator returns to Sudan from several years at university in England, spending two months each year in his home village of Wad Hamid, the setting for most of Salih’s works. There he meets the elusive Mustafa Sa’eed, an outsider to the village who has purchased land and settled there. One evening, after drinking too much, Sa’eed recites lines in English from Ford Madox Ford’s poem “Antwerp,” astonishing the narrator, who presses him about his former life. Sa’eed recounts a thirty-year sojourn in Europe—and how his career as a prominent economist was joined by obsessive erotic conquests (“I’ll liberate Africa with my penis,” runs the novel’s most notorious line). But his exile ends horribly—he kills his English wife and serves seven years in prison. After Sa’eed is presumed dead during a flooding of the Nile, the narrator receives a letter from his mysterious friend, who has enclosed a key to a private room with papers that will enable him “to understand the truth” about Sa’eed’s European past.

Season of Migration to the North is timely, precisely because, forty years after its publication, it comes across as an anachronism. The grand dialectic it sets forth pits the grounded stability of Wad Hamid against the frenzied rootlessness of the West, experienced by Sa’eed first as libertine intoxication but ultimately as a “poison . . . injected into the veins of history.” Sa’eed’s tormented, ecstatic war, fought mostly in the bedroom (his public career is much more complicit with those who taught him “how to say ‘Yes’ in their language”), rises to the pitch of a mythic clash of civilizations. This now seems untenable. Such a vision depends on there being a genuine alternative to Western ideology and influence, a secure sense of the organic “life warmth of the tribe” as embodied in the narrator’s grandfather, who represents “something immutable in a dynamic world.” But the dynamic world has triumphed, and its triumph is total. The world bequeathed to the ascendant generation of African writers has never been anything other than rapidly shifting, absurd, fitfully Americanized, too often convulsive, and, yes, contaminated by history’s poisons. African reality may possess intensities that the rest of the world is grateful not to endure, but globalization has ensured that it is less alien and exotic than it has ever been. Perhaps such proximity explains why some now look to European history to characterize this latest flowering of the continent’s writers as a renaissance. Absorbing their examples, we may soon even learn how to write about Africa.

James Gibbons is associate editor at the Library of America and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.